Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

I always felt badly that I had never read this classic book, that I was somehow not really an SF fan because of it. Eventually, guilt or shame brought it to the top of my in-pile, and I dove in. Now part of me wishes I had simply left it there.

The premise is that humanity of early 21st century is at war with a far-flung alien race. We’re not quite sure how it started, but it looks like they shot first. The only FTL is via some kind of wormhole, but there is plenty of slower-than-light travel to and from, and much of that travel is at relativistic speeds.

So, rather than leaving it as a pure space-navy war, we decide we need some boots on the ground. So who do we recruit as our cannon-fodder? Only the best and brightest will do. So we skim off the cream of our intellectual crop and send them off to battle. If only their commanding officers were as smart.

Which is leads me to the main complaint about this book. The people in charge were always extremely short-sighted and downright stupid. I recognize that to some extent this is a screed against the U.S. political/military leadership from the U.S.-Vietnam war, but it got really annoying as to just how stupid they were making these folks.

How stupid? Well, they planned their training with the expectation that half of the trainees would be killed or permanently maimed during the training. They also sent them on missions over the years (in fact, centuries) where the expectation was an average of 66% casualties per mission. But it’s not like we were stuck in the jungles, trying not to kill too many civilians. Nope, we were fighting over deserted rocks. What part of orbital bombardment did they miss?

And then there was the whole Malthusian situation back on Earth. I know there was a lot of concern about the rapid rise of population back in the 1970’s, but even growing up with that, I was never all that worried. The concern, as originally laid out by Thomas Malthus in the late 1700’s, was that our population would outstrip our food production, and that the only ways to combat this were draconian birth control of the less desirable or poorer populations or outright war and starvation to bring the population back down to a manageable level.

Some of offshoots of this back on Earth during the Forever War were an economy based entirely on calories. Then there were some civil wars and lawlessness that brought the population down. And then we had enforced and universal homosexuality. Maybe it’s because I now live in a world where most demographers realize we are not headed towards a Malthusian catastrophe, but frankly, I found most of this to be ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to lay these criticisms on Haldeman’s 1970’s book, but its repetitive message that our leaders are stupid and we are all doomed was very tiring. I prefer more optimistic futurists because instead of complaining about all the insurmountable problems facing us, they tend to propose the solutions that actually solve those problems.

And my final complaint about the book was that the resolution of the war was very much deus ex machina. After centuries, humanity transformed into another form that was able to communicate with the warmongering aliens. No, we can’t explain to you how the communication works, but now that it does, everything is just fine. The war was a silly misunderstanding, and now everyone can live happily ever after. We thank you for your centuries of pointless sacrifice.

About the only thing I did find worthwhile in the book was the realities of relativistic travel, of skipping forward into the future. Friends and family age and die. Technology and society march on in unexpected directions. The realities of life, death, and injury change from one trip to the next. That, at least, was interesting.

But by and large, I did not enjoy the book.

Secrets and Surprises

hiroshimaheadlineI once asked my grandfather what he had thought about the atomic bomb when the news of Hiroshima broke. I expected him to say he was surprised, and while he was, it wasn’t the surprise I had been expecting.

You see, he knew the atomic bomb was under development. In fact, most of the people in his office knew, too.

No, he was not working at Los Alamos, nor was he at Oak Ridge or any other Manhattan Project facility. He was an electrical engineer at Bell Labs in New Jersey. His main military effort during the war was for sonar.

So, given how secret the Manhattan Project was, how did he know about it?

It was the sudden silence in the various scientific publications. In the late 1930’s, there had been a steady stream of advances in the study of radioactive materials and how they transformed from one element to another. There were also theoretical hints around nuclear fission and what it could mean. He remembered expecting to read very soon that they had confirmed the splitting of the atom with details about energy output, particle emissions, and so forth.

Instead, there was nothing.

Mind you, my grandfather was not a nuclear scientist. In the day, that was more a sub-specialty of chemistry, but he wasn’t a chemist either. He worked on signal amplifiers and repeaters. In fact, he considered his greatest achievement to be a key development in the repeaters for the transatlantic telegraph lines.

But he read the scientific journals, just like all of his fellow engineers at Bell Labs, and when a lot of big names suddenly went silent, they began to wonder. Calls to various colleagues at universities came back with reports of certain professors and promising grad students going on extended sabbatical to parts unknown.

From an unrelated source, John Campbell of Astounding Stories also knew something was up, and he knew it was in New Mexico. According to the story, he knew this by how many subscriptions had suddenly moved there, and when he started noting the names on those subscriptions, he also put two and two together.

So what had my grandfather been surprised at? He said he was surprised by the reality of how powerful the atomic bomb was. Little Boy exploded as 16 kilotons. Fat Man was all the way up at 21 kilotons. While they had not talked in detail around the office — it was wartime, after all — the general feeling was that fission explosions might be one hundred times as powerful as chemical ones. Some argued for closer to a thousand times as powerful.

They knew high explosive bombs were getting up to one thousand and two thousand pounds, essentially a ton. They knew some of the limits of what the bombing aircraft could carry, and from that they estimated that the fission bombs might reach 500 to 1000 tons, i.e. one kiloton. “Of course,” he said,”we didn’t really know what a kiloton explosion would look like.

portofchicagoaftermathBut they got some idea in July of 1944 when the Port of Chicago (northeast of Oakland, CA) suffered a giant munitions explosion of about 1800 tons of TNT, i.e. 1.8 kilotons. A cousin of my grandfather’s had been one of the few surviving officers of the ship that exploded (the SS E. A. Bryan), and he had only survived by the luck of being on shore leave, visiting his girlfriend in nearby Oakland. Apparently he had felt the explosion through the ground, many miles away and could see the fireball rising over the horizon. But still, the much closer towns of Concord Pittsburg had not been particularly damaged.

Armed with what knowledge they had, my grandfather had expected fission bombs to be used as super “blockbusters”, and that bombers would blanket an industrial section of a city with five or six of them, possibly expanding to the larger city with another ten or twenty. He said one of his coworkers argued for fewer since the concentrated explosion would generate a more lethal shockwave than the larger pile of TNT had done in the Port Chicago explosion. Even then, it was assumed that a bombing raid would need at least four to ten to be equivalent to a larger TNT-based bombing.

hiroshimadamageIt never occurred to him that it might be so powerful both in magnitude and in lethality that a single bomb could effectively destroy a mid-sized city. “It made me glad we were out of New York,” he said.

The other surprise he confessed was that we had not used it on the Germans. It did not come out until later just how late in the war the bomb was ready, and he had spent much of the war wondering when he was going to see it being used in the European theater. Of course, none of them knew the logistics of gathering the fissionable material nor the design problems of making it work as an explosive, and it was that delay that caused a few of the detractors to suggest that no such effort was being made.

So, looking back on that, I wonder about our own future. If certain key researchers in quantum computing or nanotechnology suddenly went silent, would I know about it? If dark matter and dark energy theorists started disappearing into an Alaskan research institute would you realize it? I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder how many of us would notice if a relatively obscure research field suddenly went dark. Did they simply lose funding, or are we about to be surprised?

Review: The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up because my wife recommended it. She said, “It saved fantasy for me.” That was high praise, but I can see now that it was worth it. I am also tempted to say that it saved fantasy for me, but I’m not sure I’ll find much else like it.

I do enjoy Urban Fantasy, but I confess I’ve never really enjoyed much traditional fantasy, i.e. epic sword and sorcercy, though I could never quite put my finger on it. The best I could say was that, “I just couldn’t get into it.” I figured that the genre simply was not for me, and I stuck to my science fiction.

After reading this book, I think I figured out my problem with most fantasy. It’s the long expository openings setting the scene and showing off all the world-building the author has done. I can’t really blame most of these authors, because this seems to be The Way It Is Done, in a mold set first perhaps by Tolkien himself.

Well, with all deference the old master, this usually bores me to death. It’s the kingdom of Blahdyblay, ruled by the Lords of Nuchinsuch since the ancient days of Dear-God-my-eyes-are-bleeding! We’re usually seven or eight pages in before anything actually happens, except in rare cases, where we start with some brief excitement, only to be followed by page after page of exposition. Look, I’ll give you the One True Ring if you’ll just shut up about the damned jibbenweed smoke for five minutes!

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter does not suffer from this problem. Admittedly, it starts with a now unfashionable prologue, but even then, it introduces a mystery. Then, chapter one starts with our protagonist, Paks, doing stuff. She’s in a struggle and is making a change in her life. She’s already five steps into the mythical Hero’s Journey, and she’s just getting started.

Yes, the book shows signs of quite a bit of world-building. There are old alliances, gods and saints, raging ogres, fallen kingdoms, and so forth, but it doesn’t come in a front-loaded infodump. Instead, it is revealed to us through the eyes of an wide-eyed foot soldier, one muddy step at a time. The narrator doesn’t tell us about the southern farm lands, the impenetrable fortress, or the honorable allies. Instead, Paks marches through them, butts up against them, and fights alongside them. We don’t so much see the world as we feel it.

Beyond that, the story is good, and it is both gritty and noble. People die, Paks gets hurt. Wounds heal slowly, and scars accumulate. But honor is upheld, and despite all the setbacks and painful losses along the way, the good guys win in the end. Since it’s also the first book in a trilogy, I should also say that powerful forces are at work in the world, and we see them moving slowly and at oblique angles. I don’t yet know where they’re going, but I can see that they’re going to pull Paks deeper into the crucible and explain the mystery that was laid out in that prologue.

So, it was very good – beyond five stars. It’s the first of a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to diving into them, even though they’re each about 500 pages long. And what’s more, Elizabeth Moon has returned to this world after several years, so even after I finish this trilogy, there will be more waiting for me. I’m tempted to dive in headfirst, but I think I’ll stretch it out a bit and savor this one for the next year or two.

Review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I’d heard this one mentioned in a lot of circles, so I figured it was time to finally pick up my copy and read it.

This book gets talked about a lot. Partly it’s that it had an unusual road to print, starting off as a free posting on the web. Part of it is also that the author, John Scalzi, is a well-known and prolific blogger. He’s also the current president of SFWA. But there were also plenty of folks raving about just how amazing the book is.

In short, it’s been put up on the pedestal alongside the sliced bread of SF. It had a lot to live up to. So I find myself in an odd position. I really did enjoy it. It was a fun story, and I would recommend it to friends. But it simply wasn’t the amazing genre-changer some folks had made it out to be.

So, the hype wasn’t really fair to it. It was good, just not that good.

Now, with that opening compliment twisted into an insult, let me repeat that it was a good book. I really enjoyed it. It was one of those books that I found myself saying to my wife, “I’m really enjoying this book.” I suppose that’s the very literal definition of a remarkably good book.

Now, if you haven’t heard anything about it, it’s the story of an old man who goes off to war. Normally, you’d think that 75-year-old’s are a bad fit for infantry, especially when going up against some of the most vicious monsters you can imagine. But in this particular case, these geezers are a perfect fit. How can that be? Well, the answer to that question is just one of the things that made this such a good book.

So check it out.

Just don’t buy into the hype.